On the clock: David Firestone, an associate teacher in New York City, starts teaching at 8:00 a.m. and is often in grad school classes until almost 10:00 p.m. Credit: Michael Berman

David Firestone, an associate special ed teacher in New York City, is in his final semester of a master’s program at the Hunter College School of Education. Yet he still feels like he hasn’t learned one of the core skills of teaching. 

“No one has ever bothered to teach us how to write a real lesson plan,” he told me in November. “They just care that we know how to write edTPA lesson plans.” He was referring to the test you’re required to pass in New York State to become certified as a teacher. A real-world lesson plan is usually half a page, maybe a little more. What the program has instead drilled into him is how to write the kind of document he will submit to get his teaching license: a super-detailed, eight-page plan, essentially a script of everything he’d say in a class. 

As a full-time associate special ed teacher and a graduate student on the side, Firestone has a finely calibrated sense of time—how to divvy it up, maximize it, save it. He leaves his house in central Brooklyn at seven to get to school in south Brooklyn by eight, teaches a full day of classes, and finishes just before three. Then he spends an hour and 20 minutes trekking to the Upper East Side of Manhattan to take grad school classes, which can run until 9:40 p.m. He often doesn’t get home until after 11. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for eight-page lesson plans. Frequently he writes his on the subway. It’s a schedule that he described alternately as “brutal” and “God awful.” 

So why do it? Because he has to. Right now, one of the most common ways that school districts attempt to increase teacher quality is through master’s degrees. Some states, like New York, Maryland, and Connecticut, require that teachers get master’s degrees in order to keep teaching. Far more states encourage teachers to get them by tying them to pay raises.

It makes sense for states and school districts to look for ways to improve teacher quality. There are many factors schools can’t control, such as family income, parents’ level of education, and so on. But out of the factors they can influence, like class size or access to technology, one has a far greater impact on student achievement than all the rest: teacher quality. Research shows that having a great teacher rather than an average one makes as much as a half year’s difference in learning growth. 

Some teachers bluntly told me their degrees were a waste of time—a surprising admission given the strong human impulse to attribute value to whatever you’ve already spent a lot of money on.

The problem is that education master’s programs generally don’t produce better teachers. While programs vary greatly, and some stand above the rest, the teachers I interviewed told me that they had spent too much time on theory and not enough on practical teaching skills; professors were too far removed from the classroom and using out-of-date pedagogy; and many programs simply weren’t rigorous. Decades of research back up their critiques. 

“When you talk to someone who is not in the weeds of ed research, they would be shocked that more education wouldn’t make a teacher more productive,” said Dan Goldhaber, who directs the Center for Education Data and Research at the University of Washington. But that’s what the data shows. Students whose teachers have a master’s degree don’t perform better on standardized tests—an incomplete but meaningful metric—than students whose teachers have just a bachelor’s degree. 

Some teachers get a master’s because they want to. But many do it because their district requires them to, or because they aren’t being paid much and it’s a way to get a raise. Some teachers bluntly told me their degrees were a waste of time—a surprising admission given the strong human impulse to attribute value to whatever you’ve already spent a lot of money on. 

In districts across the country, teachers aren’t paid enough. To attract talented, devoted people to the profession—and so that teachers don’t need second and third jobs—we need to pay them more. What doesn’t make sense is tying increased teacher pay to cumbersome, expensive degree programs that don’t actually improve teacher quality. And it’s clear that there’s a better way.

American teachers weren’t paid salaries at all well into the 19th century. Schools were largely community organized, and teachers’ compensation mostly consisted of free room and board. By the early 20th century, with the cash economy in full swing and K–8 education growing rapidly, teaching had become more professionalized—but teacher pay reflected the intense racial and gender inequities of the time. In part to confront that unfairness, districts began setting pay schedules based on objective criteria like training and years of experience. Scholars disagree on when exactly the master’s pay bump started, but by the 1960s it had become widespread.

This arrangement has proven durable. It makes budgeting more predictable for school districts. It suits the needs of teachers’ unions, who want to increase benefits that are equally accessible to all their members and tend to prefer linking pay to seniority rather than performance. And, not incidentally, it ensures a steady stream of tuition revenue to the universities offering the degrees. 

What the system does not do, however, is improve teacher quality. 

That’s not exactly what Arthur Levine expected to find when he set out to study the field of teacher education in the early 2000s. At the time, he was the president of Columbia University’s Teachers College, one of the most prestigious programs of its kind in the country. Education schools were coming under criticism, but Levine assumed that his research project would prove their value. He and his research team conducted four massive surveys and 28 case studies of education programs, resulting in a more than 100-page report. 

“When I started the study, what I suspected was that the criticism was overstated,” he told me recently. He was wrong. “Things were so much worse than I had imagined,” he said. “It was shocking.” While there were some standout programs, on the whole he found a system rife with low selectivity, low rigor, and low graduation standards. Students criticized faculty for having limited classroom experience, which led to dated material and a lack of practical tips. Worst of all were school- administration programs, which many teachers enroll in with an eye toward career advancement, and of which Levine concluded, “The majority of programs range from inadequate to appalling.” 

Subsequent studies have backed up Levine’s research, showing that teachers with master’s degrees aren’t any better, on average, at educating students. (A notable exception, according to recent research, is that students had higher math scores when their teachers had master’s degrees in math or science.) The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, which represents hundreds of colleges and universities that have education programs, cautions that much of this research relies narrowly on student performance on tests, and doesn’t capture other skills we expect teachers to impart. But the consensus among people who have studied the question is overwhelming.

“Most of the research is that there’s either no statistically significant difference, or small significant differences, in teachers with master’s degrees,” said Thomas Kane, an economist and professor of education at Harvard. Matthew Chingos, an education-policy expert at the Urban Institute, has described it as “one of the most consistent findings in education research.” Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, put it more bluntly: “It’s as conclusive as research that finds smoking causes lung cancer. It’s as conclusive as the research on climate change.”

It cuts against logic. How could several years, hundreds of hours, and tens of thousands of dollars spent on making teachers better not make better teachers? 

One explanation I heard again and again was that programs spend too much time on theory and not enough on practice. “Education programs in general are abstract, and they don’t really give teachers opportunities with real-world practical strategies which you can utilize in classrooms,” said Jessica Chirico, a social-studies teacher at a New York City charter school, who, like David Firestone, did her master’s at Hunter College. “Vygotsky is a great guy, Piaget is a great guy,” she said, referencing two famous pedagogical theorists. “But at the end of the day, the kid is throwing paper balls at his friend in the classroom, Johnny is not listening—how is that going to help you?” 

Firestone found that many of his professors were professional academics who hadn’t worked in a school classroom for decades, or at all. “There’s nothing wrong with leaving the classroom to be an academic,” he said. “But I just find that people who are in the classroom every single day think more practically than the academics.” Other teachers noted that their professors weren’t using up-to-date pedagogical practices themselves. Martin Goldman-Kirst, a math teacher at Cleveland High School in Washington State, recalled the irony of being lectured on not lecturing his students. “I found that really funny,” he said. “It would have been funnier had I not been so bored.” 

When programs do try to deliver hands-on classroom experiences, it can be the most valuable part of the degree—but it can also fall flat. Firestone was required to spend a summer observing and learning from full-time teachers leading summer school classes. But the teachers, he said, were hardly models to emulate. They were mostly close to retirement or brand new, and were teaching summer classes because they needed the money or didn’t yet have a full-time job. Sometimes Firestone found himself offering to take over a lesson. 

To the extent that programs are challenging, most teachers I spoke with pointed to the burden on their schedule, rather than the rigor of the content. This leads to perverse incentives. The salary bump for getting a master’s degree is given in exchange for the signed and stamped diploma, whether or not teaching improves. Teachers, most of whom already have tightly packed schedules, often seek the least time-consuming programs. Schools of education, in turn, compete for customers by making their programs less demanding. In many districts, there are few restrictions on the types of degrees that qualify, so often teachers choose subjects, like school administration, unrelated to what they teach. It might qualify them for a more lucrative leadership position down the line, but it won’t make them a better math, Spanish, or history teacher now. “You could get a master’s degree from a topflight master’s of education program, or you could go to a fly-by-night program, and typically those two would be treated the same [by the school district],” said Dan Goldhaber, the researcher at the University of Washington.

Teachers, most of whom already have tightly packed schedules, often seek the least time-consuming programs. Schools of education, in turn, compete for customers by making their programs less demanding.

Laura Lozito, a social-studies teacher who works with Chirico, would have liked to get an advanced degree in history. But when she compared syllabi, she quickly realized that a master’s in education would entail less reading and writing, and would cover material she was already familiar with from her undergrad courses. Her schedule couldn’t bear the workload of the history degree, so she chose a master’s in adolescent education offered online through Mercy College. The homework mostly entailed posting in an online forum for her class. It was a lot of “ ‘Yeah, I agree with so-and-so’s point,’ ” she said, and it got tedious. “I will be 100 percent honest, I did not notice any added value with this degree,” she told me. “With the exception of a couple of things I gleaned from the texts, I feel like if I had never gotten it, I’d be teaching the same way.”

Nixing the automatic master’s pay bump, which many experts advocate, would likely face intense resistance from teachers’ unions. It would also draw quiet resistance from a less obvious source: the universities awarding degrees. Data from the Department of Education shows that education master’s degrees are the second most commonly awarded master’s degrees in the country, after MBAs. That makes them an important and reliable source of tuition revenue—as long as teachers feel the need to get them.

Marguerite Roza, an education-finance expert, got an inkling of that fact when she published a paper arguing that states should end the “master’s bump.” The money going toward degree-based pay raises—nearly $15 billion nationwide in the 2007–08 school year—was a waste, she argued. She authored that paper from her perch at the time at the University of Washington’s College of Education—the very sort of institution that was benefitting from the arrangement.

The paper had been out for less than a week, Roza said, when she heard from the dean of the college, Patricia Wasley. Wasley told Roza she had been inundated by calls from deans of other education programs across the country, according to Roza. They were asking that she censure Roza or even make her retract the paper. Wasley declined. 

“The college of ed, for sure, earned a lot of their money through this whole handshake relationship with the school districts,” Roza told me. “It makes colleges of education extremely resistant to any real change.” 

That doesn’t make real change impossible, however—in fact, some states have already done it. In 2013, North Carolina stopped paying teachers extra for master’s degrees in part because of the research finding their limited impact on student achievement, and in part because of budget squeezes from the Great Recession.

But wait: Does this mean paying teachers less? As teacher strikes have swept across the country, the public has been reminded that in many places, teachers make so little that some end up taking second jobs, or even, in extreme cases, selling their plasma. In most places, we should be paying teachers more, not less. 

Data shows that education master’s degrees are the second most commonly awarded master’s degrees in the country, after MBAs. That makes them a reliable source of tuition revenue for the universities—as long as teachers feel the need to get them.

Roza agrees. This money should still go to teachers—it just shouldn’t be tied to an expensive, time-consuming degree with no tangible benefit. Simply giving all teachers higher salaries, says Roza, would be better than having teachers go into debt to get degrees.

Some districts are proving that it’s possible to do one better. Over the past decade, DC Public Schools (DCPS), long seen as one of the worst school systems in the nation, has clawed its way up the ranks of urban school districts across the country. In 2019, only D.C. and one state (Mississippi) saw improvement across most measures on an important national test of fourth and eight graders. Some of those gains are due to demographic changes, but research shows that demographic change isn’t the whole story. The district also undertook a series of major but controversial reforms aimed at improving the quality of the teacher workforce. As part of the teacher effort, it abandoned the traditional practice of paying teachers strictly on the basis of years of service and graduate credits. It implemented a new evaluation system, combining principal evaluations throughout the year with student test scores and other measures. High marks meant that a teacher would get a substantial bonus and, in some cases, permanent bumps up the pay scale. The small percentage of teachers rated “ineffective” were dismissed. In addition to shifting to a performance-based pay system, the district also beefed up mentoring and career development, including by implementing a weekly coaching program. 

Vast racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps among students remain, and when the Washington Teachers’ Union surveyed their members, a majority said they felt that the evaluations were unfairly subjective. But academic researchers found that, on average, low-performing teachers who leave the system are replaced by more effective ones. And a recent Washington Post poll found that the share of Washingtonians who approve of the city’s schools (including charters) is at a record high, and up sharply from 2008. 

Not all school districts could easily replicate what DCPS has done. Smaller districts, especially in rural areas, can’t replace low-performing teachers so easily, and they may not have resources for a robust coaching system. In other words, those districts will still have to rely on university programs to provide continuing education for their teachers. The question is how to make those programs better.

When I put that question to experts, several suggested looking into Relay, an independent nonprofit grad school that focuses exclusively on teacher and school-leader education. Initially incubated within Hunter College and accredited in 2011, Relay was created to be a hyper-practical program for training new teachers. In their first year, students work in classrooms full-time with mentor teachers, earning assistant-teacher salaries. At the same time, they’re taking classes and being coached by professors—all of whom have been classroom teachers for years. In their second year, Relay students lead classrooms, earn full salaries, and continue to take courses and receive feedback. Student teachers submit video of themselves leading classes, which professors  review and give them feedback on, like a football coach going over a game tape with players. 

Relay has grown quickly, and now has campuses in 19 cities. It says it educates more than 4,000 student teachers. The school’s impact on students hasn’t yet been evaluated by third-party researchers, but some early indicators are promising. Relay had 18 first-year teachers working in DCPS in the 2018–19 school year who were assessed under the district’s evaluation system. While it’s hard to draw conclusions from such a small sample, Relay says the share of its first-year teachers scoring in the top two brackets was nearly 20 percentage points higher than other novice teachers in the district.

Researchers will watch as Relay and other programs test out new strategies. But there’s a larger, structural fix: decoupling master’s degrees from automatic raises. Enrollment in education master’s programs would almost surely dip, at least initially, but those still choosing to enroll would become more demanding customers. As Marguerite Roza and Patricia Wasley put it in a piece for Education Week responding to the backlash against Roza’s research, replacing the master’s bump with performance-based pay would “tip the scales to those programs that have redefined their offerings with a focus on achieving better results in the classroom.” 

Figuring out how to actually make teachers more effective should be a national priority, Arthur Levine said. “The research makes clear that teacher quality is one of the best investments we could possibly make,” he told me. “Our future depends upon the quality of our teaching force.”

This piece was produced in partnership with FutureEd, an independent think tank at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. Brooke LePage provided research assistance.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly described David Firestone as a special ed teacher. He is an associate special ed teacher. We regret the error.

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Grace Gedye is reporter for CalMatters. She was an editor at Washington Monthly from 2018 to 2021.